D.C. DanceWatcher

Dancing While a Black Man

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 25, 2017

 

Triggered
Helanius J. Wilkins
Terrace Theater, Millennium Stage
The Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
December 3, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Helanius bon coeur

Well before “Black Lives Matter,” the hatch tag and the movement, former Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Helanius J. Wilkins was making work that unapologetically demonstrated that black lives matter. It’s been 16 years since he founded his all-male, all-African-American company Edgeworks Dance Theater in the District. Created during an era when especially young black men in urban areas were besieged — and struggling for recognition, for respect, for racial equity, amid drug, gang and police violence, Edgeworks (2001-2014) pulled back the curtain on ignored aspects of black men — gentleness, graceful, loving, softness, intellect — that the press often neglected.

Triggered, a retrospective culled from a handful of Wilkins’ works, reveals the obvious: not much has changed in how black men are regarded in America today and back in 2001, when he began his choreographic explorations. Black male identity has long been Wilkins’ wheelhouse. Among his works, Risk (2001), Fearless (2003), the collaborative Extreme Measures (2004), Cold Case (2005) and Trigger (2011) all deal with issues relevant to black masculinity. His works traverse headline-blaring topics like gang violence, police brutality to less remarked on issues like homosexuality, homelessness, and identity politics. Sometimes he pushes back against the expectations audiences have of black men and black male bodies. He’ll show us two men in a delicately performed duet, their easy grace and lightness upending the stereotypical way black men are portrayed in the media.

Case in point is the three-part “A Love Crisis,” from 2006. The piece opens the program with Wilkins, clad in a loose silky white shirt, as he circles his torso with a Doris Humphreyesque breathiness and calm, his arms unfolding like freshly laundered sheets with an easygoing flow and waft. There’s a prettiness and lightness to his approach here that belies the lyrics of the Me’shell N’degeocello song “Wasted Time … On Luvin’ U”:  a bitter ballad of heartbreak, played out by Wilkins’ exit backwards his fist lowering in retreat. In “Bitter,” D.C.-area dancer Reginald Cole, bare-chested and muscular, continues the brokenhearted theme, which brings him into the floor, his head on a pillow of his hands, a collapse after his gentle strength has been spent. Wilkins returns for the final section, “To the One I … With Love,” featuring jazz singer Diana Krall crooning, “I can drink a case o you and still be on my feet.” Here he shows his balletic side, with arabesque turns imbued with the lushness of a ballerina. As ordinary as the arabesque image is on a dance stage, on a black male modern dancer it reads with a jolt, a bit of defiance even amid its loveliness. The forlorn ending of “A Love Crisis” is a study in loneliness, as Wilkins gives in, a physical retreat for his emotional ardor.

From the evening-length piece Cold Case, the duet “The Letter” includes a spoken missive from a father to his newborn son. It’s an eloquent and hopeful narration read on tape by Ayden Elder. “Dear Son, I write this letter in the hope that when you’re old enough to change the world the world will have changed.” It includes an ethical will of sorts — “You are a black man in America. You are in a position to be feared and loved. You are powerful and will have an opportunity to strike a blow against negative images …” — from a father who may not see his son grow to maturity. The searing words of the monologue overshadow the movement material, with its mixture of casual pedestrian feel and its muscular athleticism. An excerpt from Trigger, “Warning” posits the rejoinder to the letter-writing father’s hope to see a powerful, black son emerge into adulthood. Wilkins hasn’t often choreographed for women. Stacie Cannon imparts a portrait of a black everywoman. Seated in a chair, Cannon performs amid clamor of sirens, the theme song to a popular cop reality series and news reports of violence in the black community. Weighted and slumped, she exerts effort in revealing the demoralization and pain of women waiting for word on their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Her elbow cocked as if she holds a burning cigarette, Cannon’s shoulders roll forward, her head drops, bereft. “Warning” raises the unspoken question: who are the hidden victims of violence?  

“Media’s Got Me All Figured Out: Reloaded” provides a bit of a release from Wilkins’ older works, with their focus on race, crime, and violence. The trio, accompanied by recorded interviews and sound bites, a counterpoint to the broad brush strokes of the choreography, with its flinging arms, athletic jumps and push-up planks. The two men, Aaron Allen Jr. and Keith Haynes at one point catch Arneshia Williams. Later, the image is reversed, she’s holding up one of the men, collapsed in her arms. Among the aphorisms and epigrams shared in the voiceover, the statement “Racism is real. Racism is not dead” precedes a sobering roll call of names of black men who have been killed in police violence in recent years. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Freddy Gray. And on. And on. And on.

The 50-minute program, presented in the recently renovated Terrace Theater rather than the less accommodating Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center due to activities for the Kennedy Center Honors, concluded with a snippet from a work in progress. The excerpt from A Bon Coeur, the full work premieres in 2018, glimpses at the artist’s roots in New Orleans. A Louisiana native, Wilkins pays tribute in color, light, sound and movement to is beloved forbears and their city and its rich cultural heritage. But he’s not immune to the turmoil of the region and to its recent challenges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Featuring a text written and spoken by Wilkins and a video portrait of the city, shown through a video window projected on the stage backdrop, provides striking imagery and language. Beginning with stormy weather and a bouncy Second Line New Orleans brass band, the quickly shifting collage of video clips includes parades, gospel choirs, rainy streets and backyards. Wilkins choreography recalls his earlier athleticism, powerful and graceful, the choreography serves as a supplement, rather than the main course. He becomes a supplicant with prayerful hand gestures and outstretched arms, trembling, falling prostrate on the ground.

Later he pulls himself to standing, reaching, palms beseeching. Later he pushes forward, his arms suggesting a breast stroke, swimming against an invisible current. “I was raised in you,” Wilkins says, of his beloved New Orleans. A Bon Coeur is his paean to a city that has faced adversity but moves forward, a vibrant artistic and cultural gumbo. Interestingly, this latest work, is a fitting addition to Wilkins body of work. He spent two decades wrestling with identity, public and private, of black men. Now in Au Bon Coeur he digs deep into his roots. In all, though, Wilkins doesn’t allow his audience to forget, even for a moment, that experiences of black men in an America remain far from equal to their white peers.

Photo: Angelisa Gillyard
December 17, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: